Skull & Bones hands-on preview: Booty rockin’ everywhere

It’s hard to look at Skull & Bones and not compare it to Sea of Thieves. Both are games where you assume the role of a pirate, and both have sea-sailing at their core. So, what makes Skull & Bones so special?

I was unsure, really, as to what I would be seeing from Ubisoft when I signed up to preview Skull & Bones during E3 2018. I sat watching the Xbox press conference when a trailer for the game flashed onscreen. Cool. Seems like a different take on the pirate genre.

In this multiplayer naval game, your goal is to become the undisputed pirate king. To accomplish this, you will collect a fleet of customizable ships, prey upon lucrative trade routes, and take down powerful rivals—including legendary pirate captains, historical characters, and of course other players.

One of the things that first caught my eye was the sheer number of Ubisoft studios that were involved in the development of Skull & Bones. Ubisoft pulled resources from multiple of its own studios in order to create this pirate adventure. In fact, there were so many listed on the loading screen that I couldn’t write them all down. Unfortunately, my gameplay recording also started post rollcall credits. Ubisoft Singapore was the only one I could recall, and the only one listed on the reveal trailer.

The gameplay demo for Skull & Bones was pretty straight-forward. Within moments the other nine players and I were firing cannons and attempting to destroy each other’s sea vessels. Oddly enough, the gameplay at times reminded me of the combat found in older tank battling games from the PlayStation 1 era, which is not a bad thing whatsoever. Those types of games made steering a massive vehicle fun, while still providing depth to the overall combat experience. That was exactly the case for Skull & Bones when dueling it ship-to-ship.

One of the best examples of the ease into combat were each ship’s cannons. For example, if you wanted to jump to the port (left) or starboard (right) side of the ship, you would only have to move the LS in either direction. This provided a sense of combat fluidity and also removed excess ship maintenance during tense moments. You were free to fire, drop anchor, or run full steam ahead into plumes of gunpowder smoke. Sailing with or against the wind is also something you must manage.

Different types of cannon fire damage different parts of your opponent’s ship. Aim for the sails with some and the haul with others.

Another thing that emphasized this streamlined combat was the use of powerups for each of the vessel types. The first ship I chose was the Jaegar. It was most proficient in acceleration, having maneuvering and firepower coming in second and third stat-wise. The Jaegar’s special move, which could be enacted with the RS, delivered charges from its “front cannons to deliver a burst of massive damage.” Each ship had differing types of stats and special attacks, and each had its own respective cooldown time for specialty moves.

It’s also important to note what’s gained from looting ships. In some cases, when you spot a ship from your birdnest, it then becomes marked as a waypoint. Attacking and destroying a marked ship will allow you to loot the chests and/or items. Doing so allows you to repair your ship when it has been attacked. I’m curious to see if there will be a much deeper use of these and other tools as the development continues for Skull & Bones.

The only thing that was apparent and missing from the demo was on-foot combat and exploration. While you could hold down the A button on your controller during the match to board another ship, it only started an animation showing off the boarding action. There was a similar scene when boarding another ship to gain the loot from it once it had been sunk. The person leading the demo was from the studio and also had corrected herself when talking about this feature. So it begs the question, what will this look like in the final product?

During the demo, both uncommon and common chests were discovered.

One final thought on the demo addresses the multiplayer aspect of the game. In the case of the demo, you could request or follow other ships that were in the vicinity. It was impressive to see the ease in which other ships could join your fleet to take down other packs. Although our mics were not completely working during the session (you can hear some of the voice chat between myself and other players in the gameplay capture), it seemed like a much easier way to pit your crew(s) against others out there on the open water.

There is no release date as of yet for Skull & Bones. There are, however, signups available for an upcoming beta. It surprised me that the demo played was hands-on. But, luckily, it was a pleasant surprise as I am now looking forward to what else Ubisoft Singapore and co. will reveal for the rest of the game.

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